This is a remake of a traditional Middle Eastern eggplant dish, called mousaka’a (moo-sak-a-ah). Several variations of this dish can be found in other countries like Turkey and Greek. The famous Greek “moussaka” is somewhat similar, except that it includes meat and cheese, whereas the Middle Eastern or Levantine* dish is vegetarian.
Mousaka’a is enjoyed as a cold starter and sometimes can be offered at Lebanese restaurants as a meze dish. It is a popular dish in the region, and even if you don’t exactly appreciate eggplants, I suggest that you give it a try.
The original method in making mousaka’a calls for deep frying the eggplants and then adding them to the tomato sauce. Instead of frying, and considering that I prefer to keep this dish healthy, I bake the eggplants in the oven to allow them to release all the retained water while cooking. The trick here is to add salt to release the water, and use paper towels to absorb the salty juice and avoid overcooking the eggplants. An alternative method would be to brush them with some salt and oil and grill them instead. The hearty flavor comes from the classic aromatics; onions and garlic cooked in olive oil, while cherry tomatoes bring a rich tart and sweet flavor to the sauce. My favorite addition is chickpeas and toasted walnuts because they provide a pleasant texture and a high amount of nutrients.
large eggplants, peeled, cut longwise into ½-inch thick slices
extra virgin olive oil
canned cherry tomatoes or fresh cherry tomatoes
Baking The Eggplants
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/400°F.
Line 2 baking sheets with 3 or 4 layers of paper towels and place the eggplant slices on the paper, making sure they are not crowded. Generously sprinkle the salt on the eggplants. Tightly wrap the sheets with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes until soft and the water has been released. Do not leave the sheets in the oven unattended.
Making The Tomato Sauce
Meanwhile, using a medium saucepan, cook the onions in olive oil and stir on a medium-low heat for 5 minutes then add the garlic and cook together for 10 minutes until the onions are very soft. Add the tomato paste and chili paste and stir together. Finally add the canned or fresh tomatoes (with the juices) and cook on medium heat until the sauce starts to thicken, about 10 minutes.
Turn off the heat and add the cooked or canned chickpeas.
Assembling The Dish
This step is very similar to the process of assembling lasagna. Start with spreading some of the tomato sauce in a medium casserole. Place the baked eggplants in one layer then add the sauce, repeat with two more layers and sauce and pour all the remaining sauce on top. Bake uncovered for 10 minutes, or long enough to have the sauce incorporated with the eggplants. Garnish with parsley and toasted walnuts.
Serve as a side dish or a cold starter. In my family we often enjoy it as a main vegetarian dish. Enjoy with fresh Arabic bread.